Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Monday, December 30, 2013

Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East
Reviewed by Anne Steele

Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East

by Scott Anderson
published by Doubleday, 2013

How did we get to the situation in the Middle East today, and who is responsible? Scott Anderson sets out the scene and the characters as a journalist rather than an academic historian. While the title would lead the reader to believe that this is another tome concentrating on Lawrence, it is really an exposition of the fascinating characters who interacted in order to achieve the unending controversial outcome. Lawrence, the famous one, interacts more or less with an American oil man (William Yale), a German intellectual (Curt Prüfer), a Jewish agronomist (Aaron Aaronsohn), an Arab monarch (Sharif Hussein ibn Ali), a French military officer (Colonel Édouard Brémond), and a British hierarchy that he informs, motivates, and betrays.

T.E. Lawrence, Emir Abdullah, Air Marshall Salmond and Sir Wyndham Deedes Awaiting Arrival of Sir Herbert Samuel, H.B.M., New High Commissioner for Palestine, 1920

This is a fascinating description of a theater of the war that has been comparatively ignored by military historians. Compared to the depressing aura of events on the Western Front, the warfare in the Ottoman Empire was so much more active. The author believes that because this was so far away from the centers of command and regarded of so little significance, the actors involved were able to innovate and improvise. Instead of trenches and futile assaults there are horse and camel charges, guerrilla ambushes, bandits turned soldiers, scientist turned spymaster, a family of revolutionaries, a decomposing empire, and ultimately oil.

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While most of this history could be said to revolve around Lawrence, an archaeologist with no military training but with a scholarly background focusing on medieval history and the Crusades, the interplay between him and the other characters is what makes this book essential for anyone wanting an explanation of this period.

The author's journalistic presentation gives us an absorbing account of many fascinating characters set in an era that has continuing implications to this day.


  1. Thank you for bringing this to my attention. Wonderful review and I'm sure a wonderful history.

  2. There is some confusion about the people in the photograph. See the Wikipedia article on Sir Wyndham Deedes (a most interesting man). Then a Brigadier-General, he is the officer in uniform at the far right. The civilian in the smart suit second from right is Sir Herbert Samuel, just appointed High Commissioner for Palestine (i.e. he is in the photo, they are not waiting for him). This appointment caused issues as Samuel was a Zionist Jew. The Air Marshal (one "l"!) is Sir Geoffrey Salmond, as distinct from his brother John, also an Air Marshal (in fact the uniform sleeve rings suggest Geoffrey was an Air Vice-Marshal at the time).

    1. Hi Adrian,

      If you go to the source page on WikiCommons for that image

      The caption agrees with what we are showing:
      Col. Lawrence, Emir Abdullah, Air Marshal Sir Geoffrey Salmond and Sir Wyndham Deedes

      Frankly, I don't know which is correct. By I think we should stay with it as unless there's another source to point to.

      Thanks for you comment though.


  3. The Lawrence story continues to fascinate us, doesn't it? Everyone my age saw the movie starring Peter O'Toole and Omar Sharif so we thought that we knew the whole story. I even read a book about Lawrence when I was in grade school. But there was so much more, and it comes out in little bits but in a pretty steady stream.
    Last year I read an entry in 'Durbar' ( the journal of the Indian Military Historical Society) about Lawrence' self-stated disparagement of Gurkhas. Apparently TE was once detained by a detachment of Gurkhas because the Havildar thought him to a suspicious person.

  4. Mike
    Re the photo - its true that the wiki jpg file is labelled as you say, but if you scroll down the page, it shows an enlargement of Deedes, and he is labelled as the man in uniform on the right. A minor point of course.
    I wonder who is the man behind Salmond's left shoulder, in British-style uniform but wearing a fez?